Teaching English by accident: The art of travel improvisation

The adventure is never over

"Namaste class..."

"This is Mr. George. He will teach you many things, about many kinds of things...and he will make you laugh."

My mouth goes dry as my palms begin to sweat. I try to suppress my shocked expression - in front of the classroom full of 9-year-olds - as the Headmaster hands me a piece of chalk, steps aside, and lays his eyes upon me expectantly. It's at this point in the story that I should tell you that I am not a teacher. I have never taught a class before, and hadn't planned on starting now. Nevertheless, I turned to the class, took a deep breath, and let out a feeble, "Namaste…"

The adventure was over.

A month of safaris, paragliding, getting lost too many times to remember, hiking the Himalaya, dodging bedbugs, making new friends, leaving old ones...I had spent over a month in Nepal and had done what I came there to do. Now I was back in Balaju, a quiet suburb (on the verge of rural) outside of downtown Kathmandu. I was with a family I had stayed with previously and had a week before leaving for the States. I had been planning to head back to Thamel - the downtown commercial tourist trap cesspool - that now carried an odd familiar warmth, the same way that Times Square does for locals who have been away from New York City for a long time. I was looking forward to spurning the tiger balm salesmen and hanging out at the tourist joints, people watching, and gathering some overpriced souvenirs. The adventure was over, I told myself.

That morning, as I sipped my minty coffee (that adjective is not an accident), my host - let's call him Gary for the sake of identity protection - Gary asked me if I would like to teach at a school nearby. It should be noted that although Gary's English was very good, every so often, idiomatic phrases would fall through the cracks and I assumed this was the case here. I am not a teacher. I like to think that I give instruction reasonably well, and my friends might accuse me of being pedantic on occasion (especially when using words like "pedantic"). But it must be distinctly understood that I have never been formally trained as an educator nor had I declared any such ability to my host.

Consequently, I assumed that "teaching" meant "tour a Nepalese school" or at the most "show and tell your American". Students would ask a few questions: Where are you from? What is it like there? Bada-bing bada-boom, time to skedaddle. Content in this blissful ignorance, I accepted the teaching contract. After breakfast, Gary's father walked me through the dusty streets and delivered me to a school teacher on her way to school, the way an apple is presented to a devoted educator. The suburban enclave in Balaju rustled gently in the morning sun as we arrived at the black iron gates of the school.

I was hurriedly introduced to the headmaster. A man of 50 some odd years, blessed with a rich olive complexion, and dressed in a grey suit. He told me to sit on the porch as class would begin shortly. As I watched the children play football (the true world religion, don't let anyone tell you otherwise) in the shadow of the 3 story concrete schoolhouse, I thought optimistically that perhaps I'd simply be observing. Boy was I wrong.

"Namaste class."

"Namaste." the children answer.

"Good morning." I say, redundantly.

"Good morning." they parrot, already a bit wary of this strange substitute standing before them.

I take a look at the Headmaster - who, at least in my imagination, appears to be smiling maniacally - and I decide it's time to jump in. With a flurry of chalk dust and overstated enthusiasm I write on the board while saying aloud:

"My...name...is...Mr. George."

"I...am...from...New York City."

"I...work...at...a...Chinese food restaurant."


I spin around with a chipper, "Any questions?"


At this point, I can feel my mouth move but I'm not sure what I'm saying. The 9-year-old faces grow long and weary until suddenly I blurt out, "Who wants to hear a song?". The class nods in relative excitement and I dive into the deep end. I begin with a little beatbox. Some tapping on the desks. I throw some melody out ("8 Days A Week", Lennon/McCartney your check is in the mail). I'm in. The class is smiling and clapping and bopping around. I look over and notice the Headmaster is gone.

I sing a few more songs while trying to come up with my next trick. Scouring my brain for some rabbit to pull out of my metaphorical hat, I reach deep down, and pull out the first thing that comes out.

"Today we're going to learn haikus," I say. "Who knows what a poem is?"

All hands up.

"Who knows what a syllable is?"

All hands down. Minor setback. No matter, we'll substitute words for syllables. 5 words. 7 words. 5 words. Following a brief history lesson, ("haikus are poems invented somewhere in Japan at some point in history…") I write on the board:

Tea is good for me

I like to drink tea and milk

Tea I like the most

Give me a break, I'm under pressure. Confident in my newfound pedagogical abilities I ask the class to take out a sheet of paper and draw spaces for each word. We fill them out, Mad Lib-style, and present them to the rest of the class. I sit back, beaming like a proud parent.

At this point, the Headmaster suddenly reappears and relieves me of my duties with a real teacher. I bid the students farewell and let out a sigh. Not a bad curriculum really. Intros, songs, haikus. I could do this all day, I think proudly.

"Ready for a bigger class?" asks the Headmaster. The chalk slips from my grasp, as my mouth goes dry, and my legs quiver once more.

Oh dear.


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